Saturday, June 20, 2009

LRO Launch!

Seriously. I have to keep pinching myself to see if it's really real. This despite a first-person eyewitness of the launch, numerous phone calls from my hubby about how well things are going, and lots and lots of rocket eye candy. This week at Cocoa Beach has been a whirlwind experience. As soon as I landed on Thursday June 11th, I hit the ground running. Lots of organization, making sure speakers were well taken care of, planning, re-planning, and stressing out over making sure that everything went smoothly. Then the news that the Saturday expected launch of STS-127 was scrubbed (the news came at a brutal 3:45 am) due to a hydrogen leak in the tank, and that the window for our launch was being "negotiated." Admittedly, my Type-A self didn't take this news very well. I had been planning for this week for what seemed like forever, and to me it was a no-brainer as to the fact that LRO should clearly get our entire window. Us getting pushed meant that we had to scramble to find people to cover the exhibits and public presentations at the Visitor Center. So I was stressed. A. Lot.

Then we found out that the second attempt for STS-127 was scrubbed, and that we would get our first opportunity to launch on the second day of our window - June 18th. Now we're talking!

Launch day arrived. My stress levels had miraculously decreased. I felt calm, cool, and for the first time in several weeks, actually excited about our launch! We loaded the first bus (well, we hadn't planned on it, but that's the way it worked out) to the Banana Creek viewing site. We're ready for launch! A few hours of hanging out, eating a soft pretzel and ice cream, picking primo seats in the bleachers, and playing the waiting game for launch. While we were waiting, we had news that the weather was looking grave, and there was a better chance of the weather clearing if we pushed forward to our last opportunity at 5:32 pm. I had promised I would call in to the auditorium at Goddard where employees were gathered to give my perspective on the launch. Given the weather situation, I asked everyone in the auditorium to take a deep breath and blow in the southeast direction to clear out the storm clouds. Talk about timing, because right after I said that, a voice came over the speaker and announced that our weather conditions turned to green! We're go for launch!

What a sight. The engines lit, and our little spacecraft that could was carried up into the sky and ahead to its destination - the Moon! I cried. And I cried some more. And I cried so much that the next day my eyelids were swollen. All of that time, energy, stress, excitement, anticipation, and joy were wrapped up in that one moment in time. LRO lifted off at 5:32:00.1 pm EDT - one tenth of one second late. That moment, that singular point in time is forever recorded in my brain as the moment that all of our collective dreams became a reality. I could feel all of the people who have worked on this mission at that moment.

And all of that was just the beginning. LRO is on its way to the Moon!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mourning the Loss of OCO

This morning, the Taurus XL rocket that was to shepherd the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) to its orbit, 700 km above the Earth's surface, failed deliver its payload. According to the press conference, the Taurus XL fairing (the shell that protects a payload during launch) failed to separate at its scheduled time. The added mass of the fairing prevented the second stage of the rocket from boosting OCO into its orbit. The fairing, with its precious cargo inside, plummeted into the Antarctic Ocean. OCO was the first NASA mission dedicated to measuring CO2 in the atmosphere. Its data would have given NASA Earth scientists a view into the sources, cycles, and sinks of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to a better understanding of the inputs to global warming processes.

Today, I personally mourn the loss of OCO. I was driving to work at Goddard Space Flight Center this morning when I heard a local radio station announce that "NASA had lost a mission to understand global warming." My heart sunk. I yelled out loud "No, no no! Don't let it be OCO! Don't let it be OCO!" even though I knew in my heart that it was exactly that spacecraft we had lost. It's weird to say that I'm mourning the loss of a satellite. After all, it is only an inanimate object. But being so close to LRO, a mission that's only months out from launching, I understand all too well the amount of effort it takes to design, build, and launch one of these precious commodities. My sadness is felt for those people who were involved in the mission in addition to the loss of the precious scientific data (and resulting understanding) that OCO would have brought.

The wealth of understanding about the Earth we have gained from the fleet of spacecraft in orbit around the Earth is priceless. We will continue to design and build spacecraft that help us understand and protect the Blue Marble we call home. That's what we do, and we do a fine job of it.